What Museums Are Doing to Collect More Work by Women Artists

Claire Voon
Mar 18, 2020 11:26PM

Installation view of “SHAN Wallace: 410” at The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2020. Photo by Mitro Hood. Courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Edward Hopper’s East Wind Over Weehawken (1934) was once one of just two paintings by the American realist in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)’s collection. So in 2013, when the museum announced that it would sell the quiet streetscape to create an endowment fund, criticism followed. But what was then labeled by some as a “deplorable deaccession” was actually a measure to rectify institutional biases. The museum has since used proceeds from that $36-million sale to enrich its collections, with half of the draw going towards contemporary acquisitions, and the rest split evenly between modern and historic acquisitions. The priority, according to director Brooke Davis Anderson, was and continues to be on collecting artists who have historically been marginalized.

“We are trying to build a collection that tells a truthful history of American art,” Anderson said. “That cannot be told without the work of women and artists of color.” And yet, those are the very individuals who museums have excluded for decades, if not for over a century.

Last year, a study by artnet News and In Other Words examined acquisitions data from 26 American museums, from the Baltimore Museum of Art to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It found that just 11 percent of acquisitions between 2008 and 2018 were of works by female artists. The numbers suggest that although American museums want to diversify their programming and celebrate women beyond Women’s History Month, few permanent, impactful changes are being made.

Reassessing artistic value

Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Margaret Pettway in the exhibition “Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019. Photo by Juan Arce. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


“We’ve seen a number of shows that indicate that there’s been a seismic shift in how we’re viewing the art-historical canon,” said Raina Lampkins-Fielder, curator of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, referring to the stream of women-only exhibitions around the United States in the past decade. “But there’s that display and then the works go away—which means there’s less opportunity for scholarship and for these artists to have longevity or be seen in other institutions.”

Real commitment to gender parity requires institutions to take on greater investments, risks, and a willingness to interrogate their own practices. But many are more inclined to take steps that are easily packaged into press releases—actions that are not sustained past a certain event, but earn good publicity.

Mary L. Bennett, “Housetop”—Four-block variation, 1965. © Mary L. Bennett. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Irene Williams, Blocks and strips, 2003. © Estate of Irene Williams. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

“The art world runs on hype,” said Maxwell Anderson, Souls Grown Deep’s president. “It’s like hydrogen—invisible, but it’s powerful. And the self-congratulatory nature of our world is one in which the slightest inch forward is celebrated with a cannonade of excitement.”

Since 2014, Souls Grown Deep has transferred more than 300 works from its collection of African American artists from the South into 20 museums. A large portion of that art has been works by women, including Mary T. Smith and the quilters of Gee’s Bend. The placements advocate art-historical change through gradual alterations of largely male and Eurocentric museum collections; half-gift and half-purchase, each transaction also works within the limiting allowances of museums’ acquisition budgets.

Public pledging to shift the paradigm

Installation view of “Zackary Drucker: Icons” at The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2020. Photo by Mitro Hood. Courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art.

In the face of tight financials, deaccessioning can be a strategic—though unpopular—resolution. According to the artnet News/In Other Words study, PAFA—in part thanks to its endowment fund—acquired works by women at a rate of five times the national average. In a similar move, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) sold seven works by men in 2018 to execute an unusual—and controversial—acquisition plan as part of its 2020 Vision initiative. Over the course of the year, BMA is collecting art by women only, and mounting exhibitions and programming to recognize women artists, to coincide with the centenary of the 19th amendment (which effectively gave white women the right to vote). BMA has earmarked $2.5 million for the acquisitions. Although that amount won’t help it reach gender parity in its collection—four percent of which is works by women artists—the plan is intended as a “bold way to make a statement about the underrepresentation of female-identifying artists in museums overall,” said BMA chief curator Asma Naeem.

“We thought that would be enough money spent to acquire a number of works that can make a statement on our walls and add to our collection,” Naeem added, clarifying that there is no target amount of work. “We’re not going in with a shopping list, but we want to have several landmark works and make sure we have a varied approach to the kinds of expressions of female-identifying artists.” She explained that curators of each department have examined holdings to identify key artists who could “create new narratives that we aren’t able to tell right now.” Curators then reach out to dealers to secure works. At the end of March, BMA will announce its first round of acquisitions. The museum is also intending to be transparent about the process and will launch a micro-website to share information about the acquisition process, which also involves input from scholars and artists of various gender identities and backgrounds.

“Ultimately, the goal is not to reach a percentage but to create a paradigm shift in how we view the ways that systemic biases and social structures have influenced what is defined as artistic excellence,” Naeem said. “We want people to have a hyper-awareness about representation.” How the BMA will sustain this effort past one year remains to be seen, but Naeem is hopeful that in that period, the initiative will have led to conversations about the value of women artists among the general public as well as art-world stakeholders, from dealers to collectors.

Influencing the influential

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Maroya), 1985. Courtesy of Nasher Sculpture Center.

Augusta Savage, Gamin, 1929. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Dr. Constance E. Clayton.

Those power players who can make real, lasting impacts on gender parity in museums include trustees and patrons, whose tastes are gradually changing. “Collections grow through a combination of intention and happenstance—like bequests that might not have been planned for years—but the fact is that collecting women artists is increasing and that will have an impact on museums over time,” said Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center. “Over a number of years, there’s no doubt in my mind that the overall balance will have shifted considerably.”

In 2015, the arts advocate Kaleta A. Doolin established an acquisition fund at the Nasher Sculpture Center specifically for art by women. It has been—and remains—the museum’s only acquisition fund, which means that the Nasher, whose current collection is approximately 16 percent female, is effectively only buying work by women artists. “I think she observed that many of our shows involved women, but the collection didn’t have that same representation,” Strick said of Doolin. “And that by placing women artists in this collection, she could place them in a central place in the canon of modern and contemporary art.” Doolin has annually added to her initial gift of $750,000, enabling the museum to purchase 14 works by 8 artists to date, including Ana Mendieta and Judy Chicago. How long Doolin sustains the fund is her decision.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun, Portrait of Countess Maria Theresia Czernin, 1793. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

Betye Saar, Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, 1973. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Museum made a commitment to the advancement of female-identifying artists in 2007, when it established its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. (Its namesake founder, daughter of Arthur M. Sackler, has publicly condemned the family company’s role in the marketing of OxyContin.) In the decade that followed, the museum acquired 3,841 artworks, of which 573 (about 15 percent) were by female artists; close to 100 of those pieces were acquired in 2018 for the Sackler Center as part of the museum’s extensive program “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum.”

“The Brooklyn Museum, compared to many institutions of this type, does not have large pools of acquisition funds,” said Catherine Morris, senior curator for the Sackler Center. “So we had to be much more creative in thinking about how to add works to the collection.” While the museum used some internal funds for purchases, it also facilitated donations from people who participated in “A Year of Yes,” including artist Marilyn Minter and several collectors who had lent works for exhibitions. “It is rewarding to feel that people who value the work we are doing wanted to make a permanent record of that work,” Morris added. At the same time, the curator wants to think beyond the metric of numbers. “The plan is always to acquire works by women,” she said, “but I’m also interested in thinking beyond counting female-identified artists in the collection, and looking at how we can have conversations about the future of feminism.”

Marie Watt, Skywalker/Skyscraper (Allegory), 2012. Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

PAFA, too, actively works on cultivating gifts that diversify its collection from an intersectional perspective. In 2010, it received 500 works by women from Linda Lee Alter, dating from the 1910s onward. Last month, it opened an exhibition of more than 70 artworks by African American artists gifted from the private collection of Constance E. Clayton. PAFA also has a long-term partnership with Paulson Fontaine Press to acquire prints by African American artists, partially using funds from the Hopper sale.

“As institutions, we don’t have to allow our budget to limit us in providing access to women artists,” Brooke Davis Anderson said. “When an institution decides to go in a direction in spite of limitations, whether it’s budgetary or otherwise, one often discovers that doors open and opportunities arise that allow you to build the collection that you want.”

Cultivating a diverse museum staff

Portrait of Raina Lampkins-Fielder, Curator of Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Community Partnership. Photo by Ana Bloom.

Mary T. Smith, Untitled self-portrait, 1988. © Estate of Mary T. Smith. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

But museums should also be wary of how the wealthy and powerful can dominate the art scene. And they should question how the established art-historical canon has influenced perceptions of artistic value. Too often is noteworthiness defined by auction records and critical writing, which are pocked with blindspots. “People are having difficulty justifying to their acquisitions committee the relative value of an artist they are championing,” said Lampkins-Fielder. “A museum who might be very open to diversifying collections can then have a challenging time fitting [the art] into the overall accepted narrative.”

Maxwell Anderson added that museums often look to acquire “the same five or six artists” when attempting to diversify their collections. “And they are unaffordable,” he said. “So those museums stop, drop their hands, and wait for a donation or promised gift by an affluent collector or trustee.” Souls Grown Deep—whose own collection has to overcome gender, racial, regional, and age-related biases—aims to expand these conversations by making work by historically ignored artists readily available, and by giving museums context to their practice.

The foundation’s very existence and outreach efforts underscore the failures of museums to diversify their own staff and boards. Gaps in collections are ultimately produced not by budget limits, but by structural barriers to entry, inclusion, equity, and access. Museum directors, curators, conservators, and educators are still overwhelmingly white, and senior leadership positions are often held by men. “This is not just about certain artists not being seen on walls,” Lampkins-Fielder said. “It’s about the system that surrounds them that makes it difficult for the institution to see them.”

Guerrilla Girls, You're Seeing Less than Half the Picture, 1989. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

In 2018, Souls Grown Deep launched a grant program to place young scholars of color in paid internships at major American museums. All six recipients to date are women invested in the creative landscape of the African American South. “[Collecting] is driven by fashion and fads, and it’s disappointing to the extreme,” Maxwell Anderson said. “The more we can see women in positions of leadership who understand the need to address these huge gaps, the more we’ll see progress. We need to be prodded into seeing the value of this work by advocates.”

Such efforts, ideally, will inspire more critical self-reflection in more museums and lead to truly radical measures designed to eradicate disparities. As Brooke Davis Anderson, of PAFA, put it, “There are so many great female artists and artists of color who are available and ready to partner with museums around the country that I don’t think this is a conversation of hurdles. I really think this is a conversation of opportunity.”

Claire Voon